Vocal communication signals are critical in social interactions across many species. In the zebra finch, a small, gregarious songbird, males produce learned vocal signals (‘songs’) during courtship interactions with females. Female zebra finches do not sing, but use songs to recognize individuals and select mates.
The ability of females to extract and use information from song is a critical feature of songbird communication. Moreover, this ability is influenced by auditory and social experiences in development as well as adulthood. However, we still know little about either the role of experience in shaping female song perception and preference or the neural circuits involved in encoding those preferences.
In our lab, we use a combination of electrophysiology, behavioral analysis, immunocytochemistry, and computational methods to understand how the brain processes and perceives social signals, and how both perception and the underlying neural mechanisms are shaped by social experiences as well as evolution. Current work is investigating how auditory experience during development and auditory and social experience in adults interact to shape song preferences.
Although the adult songs of male zebra finches are highly stereotyped from one rendition to the next, they are not completely static. Rather, males alter their songs depending on their audience, performing a faster, longer and more stereotyped song when they perform for females than when they sing in isolation. In addition, the activity of single neurons in a cortical-basal ganglia pathway, known as the anterior forebrain pathway or AFP, is less variable during the courtship song than when males sing alone. By recording from the inputs and outputs of the basal ganglia nucleus Area X, the first step in this pathway, I have found that this context-dependent difference in variability appears to arise within the basal ganglia proper. We are currently continuing to investigate the circuit mechanisms by which this variability arises.